What follows is an extended version of a paper delivered at the 2019 Conference of Writers and Writing Programs, Portland, Oregon, in the workshop "Hybrid Sex Writing: What's Your Position?" with Erica Jong, Jonathan Penton, Thaddeus Rutkowski, Larissa Shmailo, and Cecelia Tan.
Thanks very much for coming. I’m going to talk about two authors today, Nathanaël and j/j hastain. Both are biological females who have written extensively and erotically about the masculinity in their identity. Following their work, I’d like to talk about the descriptors “trans” and “cis,” and their limitations in regards to the ecstasy of hybrid sex writing.
We’ll begin with Nathanaël, who originally wrote under her birth name, Nathalie Stephens. She wrote quite a few books under the name Nathalie Stephens, before becoming Nathanaël and using that as her primary publishing name. Nathanaël writes almost entirely in prose poetry, vivid snippets of prose that intermingle into something that is conceptually coherent, although not necessarily narrative. I consider these pieces hybrid writing, as they cannot be meaningfully described as fiction, being that they have few points of narrative, but push the boundaries and definition of poetry.
Nathalie became Nathanaël in this book, titled, appropriately enough, Je Nathanaël (BookThug, 2006), and written under the name Nathalie Stephens. Je Nathanaël is more openly erotic than most of our author’s work. Nathanaël frequently discusses love, and the physical, but not usually as her central theme. Je Nathanaël is about the body, and the body primarily, and the body as it relates to identity. Consider this description, on page 49, of Nathanaël, who is treated, at various points, as a character, as a text, and as a real boy:
A Fuckable Text
What is a fuckable text and is it only fuckable in English? Is there such thing as a literary hard-on? Who wants Nathanaël? I do I do. Only he doesn’t exist. He is not kissing you. He leaves no fold on your mattress. He doesn’t break your heart. The tiled floor is cold and your feet are bare. Nathanaël is long gone he was never here not even once. He is a queer boy a lovable boy maybe even a fuckable boy and we are all wet or hard turning pages imagining his breath. You cannot even mourn him because he is not dead. He is not dead because he is not alive. No one knows who Nathanaël is. Have you seen him? I have only seen him from behind in a painting and not a very good one at that. I hear he likes to run in the rain and sleep with his eyes open.
The point of all this is that Stephens was bringing Nathanaël into the real world; was becoming Nathanaël, at least in literary terms, although she still uses the feminine pronoun. Je Nathanaël is filled with specifically masculine, indeed phallic, imagery of sensuality and sexuality. From a few pages in the “Second Book” of Je Nathanaël, beginning on page 31:
Against me you leave. Here you are. Where I am. You offer a hand. You say: Enter. Which I do. I enter. I sit. I stand. I walk around the room. I run my hand over the walls. I touch. I enter and I touch.
And from page 44:
I enter. I climb the stairs. I push open the door. I hesitate in the doorway. I enter.
You pull me to you. Say: Come. I come. You push me up against the wall. There. Like that. I do as you say. The street lamp flickers. Flashes across you. Drowns you in darkness. I see you. I do not see you. You slide onto the floor. Say: Come. I lie across you. You say: Kiss me. I take you into my mouth. I taste you. I cover you in saliva. You say: Yes. You moan. You say nothing more. I ejaculate. You stumble. You sob.
There are many points in Je Nathanaël in which it’s not clear if Nathalie Stephens or Nathanaël is speaking, or what that would mean, physically. I’d like to read one more passage, from page 71:
Wind tears. I don’t read any more. I do a lot of walking. People are looking for me. I don’t wait. Today I find myself beautiful. This makes me hard. It’s not narcissism. I don’t know what it is. I’m hard and I’m beautiful. Everything is possible. The body doesn’t lie.
The author of these words is speaking about themselves, a biological female. There is no mention in Je Nathanaël of a strap-on or the like, and to my understanding none is implied. The author is referring to something that is real, but not, literally speaking, physical: something which we’ll call the psychospiritual cock.
This concept appears much more heavily in the works of j/j hastain. hastain is very much a mixed-genre writer. This book, Inverse Figs (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), for example, switches back and forth between traditional poems and what the author calls “Little Gender Essays.” hastain also creates what they call “poem-cells,” visual collages with text, which necessarily merge into a number of their text-based books, stories, and poem-sequences.
Unlike Nathanaël, hastain uses gender-neutral pronouns, and if I have sometimes misgendered them, I hope you’ll forgive me, because within the context of their work, hastain switches pronouns freely and frequently. For example, I had the pleasure of publishing pleth (Unlikely Books, 2013), hastain’s collaboration with the late Marthe Reed. The title, “pleth,” is a pronoun of hastain’s invention, short for plethora, which they use to describe their own gender identity. At hastain’s old literary site, now off the web, they described themselves as Trans-with-a-capital-T, meaning not a trans man nor a trans woman, but in an ever-shifting liminal state of gender identity, a liminal gender identity that informs their sexuality.
Sensuality and sexuality are at the core of the majority of hastain’s writing. Consider, for example, this book, Apophallation Sketches (MadHat Press, 2016), which is a series of vignettes in different personas. Most of these vignettes talk about sexuality, which is presented as naturally powerful and good, and human reactions to it, which are often flawed. This book is not, however, limited to human sexuality. The learned writers, publishers, and critics in this room can be forgiven for not being familiar with the word in the title, “apophallation,” as the word does not refer, at least not literally, to any human behavior. It refers to a practice sometimes found in the sexuality of some banana slugs, which are hermaphroditic. As hastain describes in the introductory note of Apophallation Sketches, page roman numeral 9:
Each snail’s rather large penis wraps spirally around, into, and through its mate. There are times, after the passion of their courtship, the slugs are physically unable to separate. They are so intrinsically connected, now, it seems they might remain this way forever: unified, inseparable.
Then suddenly one slug gnaws off its partner’s or its own penis. I imagine this decision involves much less assessment: made in an instant, without remorse. That act is apophallation: take a gulp of ephemeral air, then chomp down, amputate your lover’s (or your own) dick.
But let’s talk about Inverse Figs, hastain’s latest book, which is subtitled Masculine Medicine: A Boi Book Configures Bounty: A Genre of Gender Joys: Downward Ascension Upward Depth. The front cover is an inoffensive mash-up of positive masculinity, but the back cover has the head of a penis, complete with prince albert piercing. As the title, subtitle, and cover imply, this book is almost entirely about trans masculine sexuality, and indeed has a great deal to say about cock. Specifically the cock of j/j hastain, who is, again, a biological female. It talks at length about their psychospiritual cock. It talks about how hastain discovered their cock. From page 60:
Chronic vibrations? HE
Had to go Below to unearth
his cock scanning atoms
of previous deaths
does the origin of electromagnetic
if at this point
he chose to fight
it would be
most about what he is fighting for
of psychic nerves
animating the biochemistry of his phallus
makes it real
never ending connection to
strap on will always be
will never be
traitor to fractal truths
And the “little gender essay” on page 162:
She asked me about the process of coming to realize my dick. It’s true—cock-sacred as realization began as and will always be energy.
I began to realize energy sexually when I knew I wanted to take both men and women. A catch in the throat of the wolf running at full speed deep into the woods. Eyes wild. Jacking off a harp string or a strand of light or a lightning strike—light’s emanation the result on and from all sides.
Yet, when I first had experience of my dick as sexual—that would not have been when I was pushing girls up against the wall and spreading their lips over my face. That was much later. First gnosis—I was alone with myself. Felt my dick as phallic collection of flickering chandelier dangles that all stay within the shaft and keep it unconditionally firm.
In Inverse Figs, it is extremely clear that hastain is talking about an essential part of themselves, one that they discovered, rather than created. Their cock is inescapably psychospiritual. At the same time, it is explicit that hastain uses a strap-on, which they celebrate as a realization of the psychospiritual cock they inherently possess. The strap-on, while honored, takes a back seat to the psychospiritual nature of hastain’s cock, particularly in the three passages in which they describe their cum. From page 106:
dripping down her throat
what is in my cum
-crushed pine needles after they have drawn a slight amount of blood upon being picked
-pride phrases re Trans embodiment self and sex
-jewels on the robes of protective angels
-primal tones as fingerprints
And from page 191:
In her eyes, the lava. The cum of God spattered on a mirror.
I could feel her on the brink of wanting me to fuck her with my literal wand.
Then the line that closes the gender essay on page 223:
Cum drips a Herkimer diamond.
If one were to reverse-engineer these writings, starting with the psychospiritual cocks and then pondering what sort of literature would best accommodate them, hybrid writing seems inevitable. Psychospiritual cocks do not belong in static or traditional forms. They are organs of jubilant freedom, of wild celebration. They offer ecstasy and release and they offer it to anyone who chooses to identify with them, to fantasize about them, or both. And I’m hoping that everyone will listen when I suggest you try on a piece of this. If there’s one thing you take from my talk, it’s an appeal and an invitation. I hope that everyone here will go to the Emily Dickinson area, or back to their hotel, or a bar, and, with hastain’s words as a prompt, write out the ingredients of their own psychospiritual come. Write down what comes out of your psychospiritual genitalia, whatever form it might take. Write down what you want to fill your lover with.
The psychospiritual cock makes for wonderful, erotic, literature, and I hope to hear your writings about it. And this brings us to our inevitable counterpoint. What of the counterpart of the psychospiritual cock?
There is no writing that can escape, or be separated from, its political context. There is therefore no writing that can escape the reality of millennia of patriarchy, and its enforcement arm, misogyny. When we talk of psychospiritual cocks, we do so with an easy freedom befitting something so uncontroversially natural and beautiful. But when we talk about a biological male assuming the psychospiritual genitalia of a woman, things get very sketchy very quickly. Even the vocabulary is, necessarily, limited. The word “cock,” as opposed to penis or dick, is very specific. It has a counterpart in the language of female genitalia, a word that is frequently used in the bedroom, but one that has such an oppressive history of cruelty and misogyny that I do not feel comfortable using it in this paper. How, then, can a biological male writer embrace their anima, as Nathanaël and hastain embrace their cock?
I don’t know. I can’t pretend I have even the beginnings of an idea. I will, however, say this.
We accept that gender identity is a spectrum, including a variety of types of bigender, genderqueer, and genderfluid identities. Consider, then, that the difference between cis identities and trans identities are also on a spectrum. It is logical and reasonable to look at me and call me “cis,” just as it is logical and reasonable to look at hastain and call them “trans.” And then what of Nathanaël, who uses feminine pronouns? Perhaps they occupy a space in between cis or trans?
Hybrid sex writing is always liminal. hastain's Trans, specifically, is distinct from the identity of a trans man or a trans woman. Their writing is a metaphor for their identity and their identity is inseparable from their writing. I suggest that hybrid sex writing is best served by a spectrum-based approach to all aspects of identity; that authors working in this field are ill-served by common definitions of identity, but better-served by self-definition, both in the sense of a spectrum, and by specific literary observations, such as the highly personal descriptions of what is in their come. Thank you.
Jonathan Penton founded UnlikelyStories.org in 1998. His own poetry books are Last Chap (Vergin' Press, 2004), Blood and Salsa and Painting Rust (Unlikely Books, 2006), Prosthetic Gods (New Sins Press, 2008), Standards of Sadiddy (Lit Fest Press, 2016), and the electronic chapbook Backstories (Argotist E-books, 2017). He lives in south Louisiana, after a fashion. Jonathan recommends the Southern Poverty Law Center.